3 tips for learning the important skill of reading hand written Arabic

While not usually taught in courses, possibly the most underrated skill an ASL student can learn is how to read hand-written Arabic. You will almost certainly be called upon to do this at some point if you aspire to a career in journalism, translation, consulting, Foreign Service, academic research etc.

In fact, this is more important than learning how to write Arabic itself. It is hard to envision many situations where a non-native would be called upon to write a document in Arabic. Whereas I can list dozens of  work scenarios where the skill of being able to read hand-written Arabic would come in handy.

Here is The Bad News:

99.9% of the time,  the documents you will encounter will look nothing like this:


I learned this hard way. It was 2008. I got a job interview in Cairo at the office of a major European media outlet. They wanted someone who could read incoming dispatches sent in from the field, always hand-written. It would be a cinch I thought.

The interview consisted of the director handing me a fax and having me read it out loud in Arabic. It was probably the shortest interview ever at this office.  After making my way through 3 words in 30 seconds, I had bombed it.

Here are two random samples of what most hand written documents look like:




If you are an Arabic student, can you read the above 2 documents at close to the same speed at which you can read typed-out Arabic? If not, you don’t have this skill quite yet.

And these are pretty “neat.” Many will be far messier and more difficult to read than this.

So how do you go about learning Hand-written Arabic?

#1 – Just Take the Time To Learn It.

There is no magic formula. You just have to make a conscious decision to dedicate X amount of your time to developing this skill. Probably about 40 hours of studying. That may seem daunting and for that reason many figure the ROI isn’t worth it. But if you learn it, you will have learned a practical skill that can add significant value in any number of work-force situations.

#2 – Get a tutor and have them teach you hand written.

Practice. Have them write out a text you know in hand written, perhaps a random article from the front page of a newspaper. Read it. Then compare the two so you can recognize patterns.

#3 – Find a Copy of this book:

Screen Shot 2016-09-08 at 12.33.53 PM.png

It does an excellent job at illustrating how there is a system. If I come across other good resources on hand-written Arabic I’ll be sure to update.

8 thoughts on “3 tips for learning the important skill of reading hand written Arabic

  1. I quite agree, “it’s more important to learn than writing Arabic”. The dirty secret that Arabic teachers hide is that writing is the least important of the four skills. I’ve been at universities in the Arab world for more than 20 years, and I maybe write a document in Arabic, usually letters, maybe ten or a dozen times a year, at the very most. And, unless students take a business Arabic class, they don’t usually get much training in writing Arabic letters. (A good online resource for that is this: http://www.arabglot.com/2013/10/arabic-polite-expressions-for-letters.html) and for you poor Arabic students who are compelled to write critical essays, there is this: (http://www.arabglot.com/2011/03/arabic-essay-language.html). About the only real reason for requiring students of Arabic to write essays is to get them to think about how the language goes about things. Reading is a good way to instill that, too. Another skill that is given short shrift in the Arabic class is reading aloud. Yet, according to El-Said Badawi in his 2002 article “In the quest for the level 4+ in Arabic: Training level 2-3 in independent reading,” the two fusha skills that native users of that medium employ most often is silent reading and reading aloud.


  2. Nathan

    Professor Wilmsen,

    Thanks for these excellent resources.

    Actually, once I wrote the post, I did remember a couple of occasions when I was in Saudi Arabia, where I (attempted to) wrote short letters in Arabic in the context of work the US company I was working for was doing for a Saudi government agency but that experience supports what I am saying in the post.

    It ended up taking too long to justify the ROI. I did it largely because I thought it was a skill worth pursuing, but in practice I had to show the letters to native Arabic speakers, and they would complain that I said things in the wrong way, and the time spent making changes, made me realize it wasn’t worth it. The next time I just said, ok, you write the letter.

    I do think developing the ability to type out Arabic is a sub-skill worth trying to get good at. I consider this a separate skill than the core skill of “writing Arabic.” Maybe there was a form letter, I could copy it out, and change a couple of details like change 3:00 to 2:00. Or being able to write out terms in Arabic to enter in Google to search stuff, things like that.



  3. I actually taught myself to type in Arabic a long time ago. On the IBM Selettic!! That’s when I began my enthusiasm for the Mac. In the day, it was the only machine that could handle Arabic. (I know, I’m dating myself!), and I needed to produce teaching materials of my own. It was also a day when the Arabic learning resources were dismal. It took longer than a decade for the DOS based systems to catch up to the Mac, and there are still interface issues between OS and DOS Arabic. As a colleague of mine has said, “I love writing Arabic on the Mac, but I hate writing it on a clone” Anyway, one of the endearing qualities of Arabic (among many!) is that it is notoriously resistant to digitalization! Great strides have been made, but Arabic computing is still a breed apart from computing in other scripts.


  4. BTW, I usually start out by giving students the sections of the Maha story that they are encountering written in my hand. I have a very practiced hand for writing on the board, but my handwriting on paper is a bit shy of the the native used. After several lessons, once they have gotten used to that, they get my wife’s hand! She grew up learning to write in Arabic.


    1. Nathan

      I really think that’s an excellent way to go about doing it – to give it to them written out on paper.

      In the so-called “Real World” the person is just as likely to get critical ARabic material they have to read in hand-written Arabic as typed out Arabic.

      Having practiced it in class, they at least have some familiarity with it….


  5. Earl

    I could use this training. Often I’ll be walking through a museum and we’ll come across old Arabic manuscripts and whoever is with me will be like “What does that say?” and I just shrug. I mean I probably wouldn’t understand 14th century Arabic anyways but it would be nice to at least recognize the letters.


    1. Actually, you probably could understand 14th century Arabic or a lot of it. One of the beauties of learning Arabic is that once you get to or through the high intermediate level, you can start reading the earliest texts. You can’t do that with English!

      Deciphering the manuscript hand is different from deciphering modern handwriting, though. And sometimes the manuscripts were copied by scribes who didn’t always understand the original meaning either, making things even more garbled. Even experts have difficulty with manuscripts, spending long, agonizing hours, or days, or months, or their entire careers, pondering the obscurities. 🙂


  6. Pingback: Reader Mail: 5 questions from an Arabic student in Cairo – Real World Arabic

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